Steven Spielberg’s utterly beguiling fictionalised movie-memoir is his new adventure in Panglossian optimism, and offers us a stunning critical insight into his own work and how and why artists cauterise childhood pain and rewrite their youth. Movies are not exactly a matter of “escapism” – a lazy and misleading word – but all about intervening in real life, reordering the landscape, addressing frailty and vulnerability candidly, but from a position of strength.
Young Spielberg is reborn as Sammy Fabelman, a little kid in 1950s New Jersey who is hit by cinema as by a bolt of lightning when he sees Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth; he is stunned by the train crash scene, which he obsessively re-stages at home with a toy train set and an 8mm camera. Like most of the movie, this is based on a real event, or anyway a real memory, and Spielberg may also want us to think of Orson Welles’s comment that a movie studio is the “biggest electric train set any boy ever had”. The one movie legend Sammy eventually does get to meet in the flesh is John Ford, played here by another movie legend that it would be unsporting to reveal in a wonderfully funny and inspirational final scene.
As he grows up, older, teenage Sammy (played by Gabriel LaBelle) and his sisters all have to move around the country because of his father’s work, finding themselves in Arizona and then in California, where Sammy is bullied and beaten up in high school by antisemites. He also finds himself in a faintly Alex Portnoy situation, dating a Christian girl who is turned on by a handsome Jewish boy, like Jesus. Dad Burt (Paul Dano) is an electrical engineer, a straight-arrow Eisenhower-era guy, but with problem-solving intelligence and a sense of structure and mechanism that his son may have inherited. (Delighted at a trick shot Sammy invents for a home movie, Burt exults: “Now you’re thinking like an engineer!”)
Sammy’s mom Mitzi is shrewdly played by Michelle Williams as someone whose depression is masked by glassy-eyed, distraite mannerisms: a gentle, whimsical soul with a slightly eccentric gamine blond hairdo, a former concert pianist who abandoned her career to raise the children. And it is from her, we assume, that Sammy inherits his own artistry, and perhaps also a streak of melancholy and self-pity. There is also his strange Uncle Boris, a former circus performer, for which Judd Hirsch contributes a hilarious, almost feral cameo. Boris warns Sammy that art and family will tear him asunder and painfully grabs his jaw while making the point so he won’t forget it.
There is a terrible wound at the centre of Sammy’s family life. His mother is secretly in love with his dad’s employee and pal: goofy Bennie Loewy (played with restraint by Seth Rogen), who they call “Uncle” Bennie. He is always round at their house for supper and goes on holiday with them. Sammy creates a special home movie of their camping trip where his mother impulsively does a fey Isadora Duncan dance in her nightie in the car headlights, to the intense embarrassment of her daughters who can see that her nightgown is transparent. But more importantly, Sammy captures proof of his mother’s illicit relationship with Bennie by noticing them holding hands in a corner of the frame; he removes these incriminating scenes from his film, showing his folks only the Super-8 picture-perfect version and confronts his mother later with this secret R-rated cut. It is a fascinating, almost dizzying metaphor for Spielberg’s own cinematic vision, his own complex family values, a need to reorder and redeem flawed reality. It is amazing to witness how Spielberg/Fabelman sees that editing is the central creative act: what to leave in, what to cut out, how to represent the truth.
An even more gripping moment of film education is to come. Sammy gets to make a movie about the school’s riotous traditional “ditch day”, when the kids get to ditch school and head off to the ocean. Young Fabelman makes a brilliantly precocious beach movie, shown to universal acclaim at the prom. But one of his bullying jock tormentors is stunned to see how flatteringly he has been filmed. He is more furious than if he had been made to look stupid: to his astonished humiliation, he can see that Fabelman has transcended him, surmounted him, utterly exceeded him in the great race of life with his own complex artistic generosity. As Sammy says, he wanted this bully to like him for five minutes, but also to make a good movie. This is the real coming of age.
As with so many autobiographical movies, so much incidental pleasure lies in wondering what is real and what has been changed, and why? I wonder if the real Spielberg ever got to confront his mother as directly as Sammy manages to. And as for the ultimate art of editing, I also wonder if Spielberg ever envisaged a barmitzvah scene for the film that he then cut? Would such a scene be too obvious, or a distraction from his real religion? The Fabelmans left me with a floating feeling of happiness.
• The Fabelmans is released on 27 January in UK cinemas, and is screening now in Australia.